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18 August 2013 @ 05:56 pm
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy  
I have fond memories of most of the McCoy era of Doctor Who, but I've tended to approach rewatching it with caution suspecting that it is not as clever as it thinks it is, and that the production values let it down.

So I was pleased that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy appeared to have stood the joint tests of time and memory pretty well. It possibly helps that, much as I enjoyed it when it was first aired, I was old enough to be aware of many of the flaws of the Cartmel era. Namely, a tendency to over-estimate the audience's patience/ability to put together the plot from hints and clues and a nasty tendency to fall apart on the end and rely on some kind of deus ex machina or macguffin to resolve matters.

In the event the Greatest Show opts for a macguffin. Kingpin's amulet and its missing eye magically resolve everything in a, frankly, rather poorly explained fashion.

That said, there remains a lot to like in the McCoy era stories and the Greatest Show is no exception. Although I mention above that I think the era over-relies on the audience to put the pieces together, I was actually pleasantly surprised to discover that all the necessary information was there in the story - the history of the circus, its relationship to the local inhabitants and the Gods of Ragnarok, and the motivations of all the characters were present and correct and, in fact, not nearly as opaque as I recalled them being. The story has a playful energy and enthusiasm that, I personally think, was missing from the stories under previous script editor Eric Saward's tenure and it is also inventive and atmospheric. It suffers, like much of 80s Who, from overly bright sets, but has the advantage of being filmed in a tent in the BBC car park, because of asbestos in television centre, which actually works extremely well with the circus setting.

The only sour note is the "whizz kid", intended as a fan everyman character, who meets a sticky end fairly early in the story. I really have no idea what the powers that be thought they were doing including such a character in the story. He fails to work as any kind of satire of fandom, and leaves the impression behind of a kind of petty dislike. Love and Monsters under Russell T. Davies (though widely disliked) manages to discuss and portray the show's fandom, and fandom in general, in a much more nuanced fashion which smacks a lot less of "why won't these horrible idiots just go away and leave us alone".

I was horribly afraid that rewatching a McCoy era story, even one of the better regarded ones, would reveal an era with a bad case of earnest appreciation of its own cleverness while surrounded by Who's frequent bug bears of sub-standard acting and clumsy production. I was relieved to discover that, while not on par in production terms with (for instance) the Hinchcliffe era, the story nevertheless has stood the test of time remarkably well and remains interesting, fun and most-importantly watchable.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/104012.html.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on August 18th, 2013 06:20 pm (UTC)
I happened to watch this the other week. I think it stands up extremely well, better than a lot of other stories from this era (and I say that while being fond of the era as a whole).

I actually don't think the production values let the McCoy era down, with one or two obvious exceptions (I can see what they were trying to do with The Happiness Patrol, but Dragonfire has never convinced me on any level). It occurs to me that the real problem is story structure: far too few of the authors actually know how to structure a story so that it's not just a bunch of cool (or satirical) stuff happening, but a bunch of cool stuff happening in a logical order informed by consistent characterization. This is compounded by Cartmel advising writers new to television (which was most of them) to write what they wanted and edit it afterwards, in the editing suite if necessary, rather than trying to write to a limit. The deleted scenes on the DVDs show that, despite fan debate in the nineties, what was cut was generally not important plot exposition, but the stories do suffer from a lack of atmosphere, detail and room to breathe, these things being the first to end up on the cutting room floor. Structuring stories differently from the start could have avoided this. I watched Survival last night and it's notable as being an unusually well-structured story for this era and the whole thing coheres very well, even though a lot of the 'explanation' for what is happening is essentially magic.

I don't mind the Whizz Kid, probably for the same reason I don't mind the same season's Kandy Man i.e. I wasn't a teenaged fan at the time of broadcast! I can see why people were annoyed. As Tat Wood said in his review, if you're in ratings free-fall, insulting your core audience isn't wise. I can forgive it all for Captain Cook, though - a marvellously unpleasant character in writing and performance.
sueworld2003sueworld2003 on August 18th, 2013 08:56 pm (UTC)
"(I can see what they were trying to do with The Happiness Patrol, but Dragonfire has never convinced me on any level)"

Not even when it comes to the death of Kane?
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on August 18th, 2013 10:39 pm (UTC)
Good point, I forgot that! And I actually like the costumes for Kane's mercenaries. I was thinking primarily of the scenery, which always looked like cheap kids' TV stuff to me.
sueworld2003sueworld2003 on August 18th, 2013 11:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah I agree, the sets weren't very good, not helped of course by the over lighting of them.
louisedennislouisedennis on August 19th, 2013 10:10 am (UTC)
I think a lot of the McCoy stories suffer from the 1980s bugbear of over-lighting and I don't think any of them ever managed to figure out how not to make video look cheap.

It's interesting what you say about story structure. Under Cartmel, the show has a definite aura of "throw ideas at the screen" from which I think it did benefit hugely, but that brought its own problems which the stories only occasionally rose above.

I don't recall minding the Whizz Kid at the time, but he did strike me as very mean-spirited on rewatching.

T. P. McKenna is excellent. I had never heard of him at the time so was somewhat bemused by the excitement surrounding his casting, but he does a lot to lift the story.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on August 19th, 2013 10:16 am (UTC)
True about over-lighting - I think the BBC directive about not having under-lit sets that was introduced in the late seventies was still in force, though some lighting directors simply ignored it.

I wonder if video 'objectively' looks cheap or if we just associate it with cheap programmes? There's an essay on this in one of the About Time books, but I never really got my head around it!
louisedennislouisedennis on August 19th, 2013 10:20 am (UTC)
I don't know about the video thing. I recall, at the time, being painfully aware that Doctor Who (and Gaiman's Neverwhere) "looked cheap" and only later realising that I was picking up on the video medium as a marker of "cheapness", but I'm not technically knowledgable enough to pin down what exactly caused that impression.
bunnbunn on August 18th, 2013 07:37 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I so loved 'Love and Monsters'. I was sad that most of LINDA got eaten because I wanted them to be recurring characters. */is irrelevant

I feel I should remember The Greatest Show, but I only have the vaguest recollection of a sort of whirl of bright colours and vague creepyness.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on August 19th, 2013 10:12 am (UTC)
I love Love and Monsters too, though I'm not surprised it generated strongly negative reactions in some quarters.

"Bright Colours and Vague Creepyness" sums up the Greatest Show very well.
Pollyjane_somebody on September 25th, 2013 05:02 pm (UTC)
vaguest recollection of a sort of whirl of bright colours and vague creepyness.
that's mainly my recollection too, except oddly I also have a strong recollection that it featured Christopher Guard, who also played Marcellus (I think) in I, Claudius, and was the voice of Frodo in the Bakshi LotR. To be honest I think him a slightly weak 'physical' actor, but I really loved his voice, which is why I remember that so clearly. (Definitely one of my favourite 'tv-voices' along with Michael Wood :-) Also Derek Jacobi, but his is a very different kind of voice.)
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 27th, 2013 10:11 am (UTC)
My memory of Christopher Guard was that he had recently been in Return to Treasure Island as a grown-up Jim Hawkins, with Brian Blessed as Long John Silver.
kristen_mara: ARCkristen_mara on August 19th, 2013 08:45 am (UTC)

I haven't watched any McCoy eps for a very long time. I do remember my first impressions of the asteriod belt/galaxy in the title sequence: "That looks like a technicolour yawn..."

Of this ep, I can remember the ring master turning to look directly into the camera in extreme close up when introducing his show. And how the conductor would attack its victims in the same manner (hands to the throat, I think), then when it attacked Ace it did so in a different way (hands to the head), giving her enough time to save herself. I did wonder if the actor who helped Ace in that scene (and got his memories back in the process) also starred in the comedy show Bread.

louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on August 19th, 2013 10:15 am (UTC)
There are some very nice performances and directorial touches - particularly with the Ringmaster and the Head Clown (though I was less impressed by the Head Clown than memory suggested) and, as mentioned above in discussion with Daniel, with Captain Cook.

Wikipedia suggests the actor wasn't in Bread - apparently he is best known for a part in Lovejoy.